Is Press Taking Possible Voting Problems Seriously?

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By: Joe Strupp

Two weeks to go until Election Day and it seems every conceivable angle on the mid-term elections is being covered. From Mark Foley’s e-mails to Nancy Pelosi’s potential as House Speaker to where the Republicans are spending money to stop the congressional power loss predicted by everyone, it seems, but George W. Bush himself.

But as the vote looms closer each day, one issue seems to be getting short shrift, considering the potential impact: Voting irregularities, whether it’s long lines at the polls, malfunctioning machines, registration disputes, or simply the unknown elements of the electronic voting systems that will be used more next month than ever before.

It’s gotten so scary that some state and local officials are urging people to vote by absentee ballot, if possible.

“It hasn’t been done enough to fully satisfy me,” John Harris, political editor at The Washington Post, said about his paper, adding that more reporting will be done in the coming weeks. “It obviously competes with all of the other things that are being done. There is some technical complexity to this. Unless you’ve got a reporter who is well-versed in that, it is hard for them to plunge into the topic and be illuminating.”

More papers are now looking at the problems, but are the media’s attempts to play “catch-up” on this issue coming too late?

The questions and arguments over voting problems in 2004, from long lines in Ohio to odd voter rolls in Florida, are only two years old. But for some, it seems that memories drew blanks. There is little proof that much has been done to ensure this year’s elections will be accurate and fair, and a lot of reason to suspect that they will not.

While a number of national newspapers have offered insightful stories about the problematic nature of the voting system, especially the concerns and unknowns of electronic voting, many other major papers have done only limited reporting on exactly what problems could appear and what has been done since 2004.

Noting an example of the Post tackling the issue, Harris points to a Sept. 17 Page One story by Dan Balz and Zachary Goldfarb that looked at the concerns about voter problems nationwide after the Maryland primary last month included some voting problems. “The problems, which followed ones earlier this year in Ohio, Illinois and several other states, have contributed to doubts among some experts about whether the new systems are reliable and whether election officials are adequately prepared to use them,” the Post story said.

Nearly all of those papers that have looked at the issue have found similar reasons to be concerned about the validity of the upcoming election and to continue reporting on what needs to be done about it. Among those recent reports:

? A USA Today front-page story on Sept. 14 declared “Election glitches ‘could get ugly'” and reported that a “rush by state and local governments to prepare new voting machines and train poll workers is raising the possibility of trouble reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election standoff.”

? A New York Times’ Oct. 19 piece described the atmosphere in some precincts as “bracing for a chaotic election day with long lines, heightened confusion, and an increase in the number of contested elections.” The story cited at least 13 states, including Ohio and California, as among those likely to have either a shortage of technicians for the new machinery or other difficulties.

? An Oct. 20 Associated Press story, which ran in numerous papers, discussed problems ranging from a lack of machines to a “confusing array of new voting rules” and election official hopes that they won’t “face a rerun of 2004 — long poll lines caused by malfunctioning machines, poll workers who didn’t understand the machines or didn’t show up, and recounts that in some cases took weeks to complete.”

“It is happening all over the country, people are taking action,” Lee Horwich, USA Today assignment editor for Washington news, told E&P, referring to the election-related activities in local districts. “It is something we have devoted a lot of time to.”

There are also a variety of local stories that indicate the uncertainty of the machines, process, and registration validity in specific areas. A recent issue was last week’s theft of voting software in Maryland, which The Washington Post reported on Friday. That story described a former Maryland legislator, Cheryl C. Kagan, receiving “key portions of programs created by Diebold Election systems.” The story indicated the FBI was investigating the situation, noting “one program stored on the discs is still in use.”

The Boston Globe, meanwhile, has localized the issue with stories focused on missed votes in Boston’s primary voting and a federal probe into voting access for non-English speaking voters in several area towns. “It is a fundamental right that newspapers need to look at closely,” said David Dahl, Globe political editor.

“I think you will be seeing a lot more stories in the next few days,” Editor Jim Willse of The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. said about such issues. “It will rise to the surface given the rising interest in the national elections.”

For its part, the Star-Ledger offered a localized story on Sunday about two Princeton University graduate students who discovered how to rig one of the electronic voting machines being used statewide in New Jersey this year to “steal elections without leaving any electronic fingerprints.”

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